Saturday, February 10, 2007

In which the Meridian hopes he has come early to a party

I've not had much to say here of late about what to do in Iraq because, let's face it: Now, what's being squabbled over in Congress is face-saving details, really. Whether or not to leave Iraq is no longer some sort of debating point; leaving is a logistical and material and, increasingly, political reality that awaits only our official acknowledgment. I don't say this flippantly, though I do say it with more than a little despair. Having to leave is a choice forced upon us. Given how this whole war has been prosecuted, from the State of the Union Address and the UN Security Council meetings waaay back in the winter of 2003 on, to be under the illusion that we are free agents in this only perpetuates what is happening there. What is even bitterer for me personally is that, although I have been opposed from the start over how this administration saw fit to enter into this war, I nevertheless thought at the early stages of it that we collectively could shape what would happen in Iraq, that with sufficient troops and materiél and funds, along with our own will and commitment, along with that of the Iraqis and their neighbors, we could indeed make something genuinely positive come out of this misadventure. We would show ourselves, the Iraqis, the world, that liberty, freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law, and a restoration of those basic services and institutions that would serve to sustain those--the things we said we were bringing to Iraq--were worth considerably more to us than the air used merely to say them or the ink to write them. Indeed: somewhere in a past post on Iraq (pre-Abu Grahib, I believe), I said that for our own sakes as much as for the Iraqis' we had to succeed in making and doing this right, that failure in this would be even more disastrous than initiating the war to begin with. Well. This is the first war our nation has fought since the beginning of the 20th century which we've not been asked to pay for with tax increases. As we all know, the opposite has happened, and we all collectively went along with that. We have not put our money where our mouth is. Or, rather, we have invested American lives but not the sort of collective will that would suggest a deep commitment to American values that, we claim and believe as a nation, all people would benefit from having.

Nor does it bring me any comfort whatsoever to come to believe that, for the administration, the fix was in long before most of us got a sense that things would come to pass in Iraq as they had--that it never had been the U.S.'s intention to do anything more than to install a U.S.-friendly government and then get out and that, when it became apparent that our stated reason for going into Iraq in the first place turned out to have no concrete foundation, we had to justify our actions some other way. "It's okay, John B.--you couldn't have known your own government was playing CYA with our nation's very foundational principles. I mean, who'd want to believe something like that?" Thank you, whoever said that. I'm much more at ease with my political blindness and naïvete now.

What we have lost, in the meantime, is far more tragic and far-reaching than what we have gained and will be with us long, long, long after this administration has passed on. Americans are both blessed and cursed with short historical memories; much of the rest of the world is blessed and cursed with long ones. If we don't want to find 10, 20 years down the road, continued examples of nations saying to us in so many words, "Pot, meet Kettle," the best response would be to start scrubbing the dishes now. Indeed, here is just one example to show that the tu quoque game has been going on for a few years now.

I was just coming into political consciousness during the Watergate years. My family was so Republican that my uncle once said that during the 1964 election our car was the only one in Austin with a Barry Goldwater bumper sticker on it. That should suffice as an example. (But, you know, better a Goldwater Republican than what passes for (most) Republican thinking nowadays. He must be not just turning but a veritable whirling dervish in his grave these days. But anyway.) So, in my preadolescent understanding, I remember seeing John Dean at that long table in the hearings telling what he knew and thinking, what a weasel, what a rat. Not Nixon, but Dean.

Iraq has been, for me at least, my Watergate. Given my age, you'd be forgiven for thinking, "About freakin' time, sir." I'd elaborate by way of response, but this post will be long enough already as it is.

So: what should/can I do with this epiphany of mine?

Well, for one thing, I think the best response I and we all have is engage in some foresight with the intention of avoiding an even worse mistake than the one we made in Iraq:
Deciding what to do next about Iraq is hard — on the merits, and in the politics. It’s hard on the merits because whatever comes next, from “surge” to “get out now” and everything in between, will involve suffering, misery, and dishonor. It’s just a question of by whom and for how long. On a balance-of-misery basis, my own view changed last year from “we can’t afford to leave” to “we can’t afford to stay.” And the whole issue is hard in its politics because even Democrats too young to remember Vietnam know that future Karl Roves will dog them for decades with accusations of “cut-and-run” and “betraying” troops unless they can get Republicans to stand with them on limiting funding and forcing the policy to change.

By comparison, Iran is easy: on the merits, in the politics. War with Iran would be a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq. While the Congress flounders about what, exactly, it can do about Iraq, it can do something useful, while it still matters, in making clear that it will authorize no money and provide no endorsement for military action against Iran.
When I first read this (in several different places, in fact), I was reminded of something I'd read sometime during the early months of the Iraq war: that someone in the administration was quoted as saying, "Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran." I had over time thought that that sort of thinking had gradually faded, if only because of the undeniable realities of an overtasked military became apparent to those thinking along such lines. Recent things, such as the new CENTCOM command, traditionally held by an Army general, is now held by an admiral, and a second and possibly a third carrier group sailing to the Persian Gulf, make me worry that some are either in denial of or are simply not caring about those realities.

For the record: I'm not all warm and fuzzy when it comes to Iran. Iran frightens me--but, I recognize, much of what frightens me is precisely that we don't appear to grasp, at the most fundamental level, what is going on in that country. I'm not speaking in terms of centrifuges and such; I'm talking about its politics. Mahmood Ahmadinejad is easily its most visible national leader, and I freely acknowledge that he says things that should make not just us but Iran's more immediate neighbors very wary indeed, but no one I've read seems to know for certain the extent to which he speaks for those who hold ultimate power there: the Supreme Leader and the Assembly of experts who choose him. In fact, some things I've read (the failure of many of Ahmadinejad's favored candidates to win seats in the recent elections there; contradictory statements from within the government on all sorts of things) would suggest that his is one voice among several, if not many, and may not even be the voice that ultimately counts. Not that we should ignore his voice, but it does seem to me that if we give weight only to his voice, we (once again) run the chief risk inherent in the One-Percent Doctrine: of mistaking the tree for the forest.

Given the above, then, I actually took some heart this morning when, in Talking Points Memo, I read the following:
Last week, the CIA sent an urgent report to President Bush's National Security Council: Iranian authorities had arrested two al-Qaeda operatives traveling through Iran on their way from Pakistan to Iraq. The suspects were caught along a well-worn, if little-noticed, route for militants determined to fight U.S. troops on Iraqi soil, according to a senior intelligence official.

The arrests were presented to Bush's senior policy advisers as evidence that Iran appears committed to stopping al-Qaeda foot traffic across its borders, the intelligence official said. That assessment comes at a time when the Bush administration, in an effort to push for further U.N. sanctions on the Islamic republic, is preparing to publicly accuse Tehran of cooperating with and harboring al-Qaeda suspects.

The strategy has sparked a growing debate within the administration and the intelligence community, according to U.S. intelligence and government officials. One faction is pressing for more economic embargoes against Iran, including asset freezes and travel bans for the country's top leaders. But several senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials worry that a public push regarding the al-Qaeda suspects held in Iran could jeopardize U.S. intelligence-gathering and prompt the Iranians to free some of the most wanted individuals.
I take heart because, this time around--before the fact of military action rather than after it--someone wants us to hear about these debates. That means that, as Fallows advocates above, we need to make sure Congress doesn't just hear those debates as well but acts on them. Now. The debate on Iraq, as crucial as it is, can wait a bit; Congress' timidity has made it thus. But in the case of Iran, Congress can indeed not just contribute to the debate but effectively settle it . . . unless, of course, the fix is already in with regard to Iran, in which case, according to some, a very different debate should take place.

To borrow H. R. Haldeman's inimitable observation from the Watergate days, "Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it's hard to get it back in." I'd say we have toothpaste enough to clean up already without adding still more to the mess.

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SMM said...

What you can take away is you HAD an epiphany and hope that this will be a collective epiphany among the US population that more questions will be asked and answers will be demanded should the elected gurus try to take a nation down a false and dangerous path.

Winston said...

Superbly stated John. These are my thoughts and sentiments exactly. Everytime I have tried to write about it, the tone too quickly turns to rant. Your presentation remains on the path of reason. Perhaps it best if I just put up a sign pointing your direction that says "What He Sez".

Fallows essay is most provocatively enlightening. We need more clarion voices like his. Now if only we could figure out how to get Bush&Co to listen.

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for commenting.

SMM, thanks for dropping by (Aside: I know I've visited your blog before, but I can't remember now who had led me to it). My goal isn't to turn this place into a political blog; some Congressmen and Senators (and some presidential candidates) will be receiving some encouragement from me, though, and I'd hope that anyone reading this post or this comment will feel the urgency of this moment sufficiently to do the same.

Winston, thanks for the kind words. But no sooner did I put the post up yesterday than I read an account in the Guardian about plans for U.S. airstrikes against Iran being well along in the planning stages . . . and then this delightful bit of dinner conversation. The matter very much hangs in the balance, it seems to me. In the matter of Iraq and, now, Iran, Congress needs to stop worrying less about its collective prospects for election in '08 and more about this nation's best interests now.
I am hopeful still. But it ain't going to happen if we do nothing but hope.